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Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe. Greed didn't take this town. Now we can talk about how Chicago really got its public lakefront. All but a handful of city fathers fought no such fight for a noncommercial lakefront, though it's natural that a newcomer would assume that they did. People who come to Chicago from places like England don't know that, here, government opposes real improvements rather than advances them. Having more to be embarrassed about, Chicagoans for a century have been obliged to boast all the harder to outsiders about their city's civilizing amenities.
And while every sizable city has a symphony and an art museum, none has lakefront parks like Chicago's. They're offered as evidence not merely of the city's foresight but of its virtue. The Struggle for Chicago's Lakefront. Originally published in , it has just been reissued in a new but not revised edition by the University of Chicago Press.
Forever is regarded locally as a small classic, one of the books on that small shelf that one absolutely needs to read to understand Chicago. Its rerelease serves as a valedictory of sorts for Wille, who recently retired as editorial-page editor at the Tribune after a useful and varied career in Chicago journalism.
Wille sounds her main themes in her prologue, and anyone who's lived in Chicago for even a little while will be able to whistle along. Chicago, being Chicago, set out to do what no other city in the world has done. The early decades saw not only the physical construction of the lakefront, mainly by filling in the lakeshore, but the erection of the legal principles that preserved it for public use.
In more recent years the building has been mainly political, as a coalition of groups employing "citizen action and citizen pressure" has risen to protect the lakefront against erosion by politicians eager to appropriate it for everything from pet public-works projects to private clubs.
As history, Wille's account is a great newspaper story. It's vivid and entertaining, anecdotal rather than analytic, and peopled with the stock characters of Chicago's ongoing populist soap opera. While Wille was not a participant in the struggle she recounts, she was anything but nonpartisan. Forever is accurate enough to be credible and misleading enough to be popular. That makes her book less than dependable as history but improves it wonderfully as a polemic.
The hero of Wille's book is Daniel Burnham--architect, businessman and benefactor, author of the city plan, organizer of the World Columbian Exposition of , and father of Chicago's lakefront. We are introduced to him on the stump, before the Merchants Club. Burnham has been praised as the only planner capable of poetry, and he liked to turn it on for these soirees.
Wille quotes at length from a famous paragraph in which Burnham spoke of "the broad water, ruffled by the gentle breeze," of "a crescent moon [that] swims in the western sky. Not that for rich people solely or principally, for they can take care of themselves. It's a pretty speech, but Wille might have done better to quote more of it. Burnham went on to ask, "Do not these latter depend upon the circulation among them of plenty of ready money, and can this be brought about without the presence of large numbers of well-to-do people?
While Burnham promised Jane Addams that the lakefront would be designed to draw the working classes to fresh air and sunshine and wholesome recreations, he sold it to the boys downtown as a tourist draw. Its real patrons would be those Chicagoans of means who used to flee to Paris, Vienna, and the Riviera for their amusements; the irony is that Burnham's parks have enticed the middle classes to spend their money in Chicago, only now they do it not as residents but as tourists from the suburbs.
Burnham believed that parks were an antidote to unrest, to overcrowding, vice, disorder, and--it probably need not be said--political radicalism. Chicago's new parks were meant from the first not to amuse the common man but to change him, to render him safe. Wille seems to share Burnham's ambivalence about the People. About Navy Pier she warns, "Care must be taken to prevent it from becoming cheap, gaudy, and overly commercial"--in other words, popular.
This cultural conflict has driven lakefront debate from the start, although Wille seldom considers its effects explicitly. It became an issue in , for example, when opposition arose to Harold Washington's idea to replace Soldier Field with a new lakefront stadium. Noted sociologist Mike Ditka characterized the opposition to a new stadium south of Soldier Field as a sort of third-and-ten between Chicago's "Grabowskis" and its "Smiths.
Hollander argued that a stadium on the lakefront would be a populist amenity, that more people like football than like sailing, for example, and dismissed objections to the stadium as elitist. This wrangle is typical of a dozen past disputes over the appropriate use of the lakefront, and not least because of the ironies implicit in the quarrel. Before Soldier Field's conversion into an imitation NFL stadium, it was an amphitheater improbably designed for civic pageants, educational exhibits, and the like--that is, built to serve ends every bit as high-minded as those of the Art Institute and the Field Museum.
Today, however, Wille would be only one of thousands who would cheer if a smart bomb were dropped on it during the next Air and Water Show, since it would speed the reversion of the site to green parkland. Lakefront protectors bristle at the charge of elitism, probably because while it flatters them personally it discredits them politically.
But their identification with the common man is mostly rhetorical. Writing about the Park District's dark ages between the s and the '80s, Wille notes derisively, "The early park commissioners had been familiar with landscape architects and city planners; the new ones were closer to ward committeemen and precinct captains"--in other words, closer to the average Chicagoan.
Lakefront protectors in the 60s and 70s instead felt a kinship with the city's victimized minorities. Forever Open, Clear and Free reads very much like a book of its time--a time for taking to the streets.
Waxing nostalgic during a recent interview on WBEZ, Wille recalled as one of her "favorite demonstrations" Hyde Park women chaining themselves to trees in Jackson Park to prevent a road widening.
Only a romanticized antiestablishmentism could lead anyone to identify with a pair of cutthroats like the Streeters. Cap'n George Streeter was the drunkard and thug who laid claim in the s to land that eventually became Streeterville. Streeter was the archetypical Chicago hero, the little guy who took on city and federal authorities, rich neighbors, and the press with hired thugs and birdshot.
With the assistance of his wife, "Ma," Streeter ran that derelict patch as a vice haven. Fought for her and Streeter's claims to own it and profit from it, of course.
Thousands of people who've always itched to pour boiling water on a cop as Ma did may identify with her, but if Ma was a people's champion it was only because she helped so many of them toward martyrdom. Wille's summary account totes up several dead and dozens wounded during some 30 years of intermittent skirmishing. Erma Tranter, head of Friends of the Parks, must sometimes think she was born one hundred years too late. Chicago's public lakefront dates from That year three commissioners, appointed to supervise the sale of public lands to finance the Illinois and Michigan Canal, decided not to sell the narrow strip along the lakeshore between 12th and Madison streets.
That muddy stretch, they declared on the plat, was to be "a public ground--a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever. It might do to examine that fateful decision more closely than Wille does, however. In the commissioners set aside land for a "common"--less a park than a public square. Commons were used as parade grounds for local militia, for markets, public meetings, auctions, political rallies, and other business. Setting aside land for one was a sensible and commonplace provision in a new town, and arguing from that to a mandate for the recreational use of public land and a sweeping antidevelopment law has required some ingenious legal interpretations.
Most of the latter sprang from the pocketbook, if not the pen, of Montgomery Ward, the mail-order king who looked out over Grant Park from his Michigan Avenue office as if it were a sentry box. It was Ward who went to court four times, beginning in , to stop a series of public construction projects in what became Grant Park, suing a succession of City Hall regimes eager to use the space for fire stations, armories, civic centers, museums, and libraries.
Ward was the father of all lakefront obstructionists, a Puritan who first promulgated the creed that since the government could not be trusted to build even a necessary structure adequately, prudence required it be prevented from building anything at all.
His legal argument was perhaps more ingenious than sound, but Ward was at least not snobbish in his disapproval. He decried the rather proletarian amusements offered by First Ward aldermen in an armory that stood in the park. These included prize fights and costume balls at which, Wille reports, the leading madams arrived with police escorts.
But Ward also warned against Grant Park then Lake Park becoming the "showground for the educated rich," which he felt was foreshadowed by the opening of the Art Institute. Wille allowed in her radio interview that he would have been "upset" by the subsequent additions to that complex; the legal precedents engineered by Ward were what caused the Field Museum to be banished to a site, donated by the Illinois Central, outside the park boundary. Speaking on WBEZ, Wille said of Ward, "He spent 20 years taking that phrase, 'forever open, clear and free,' all the way to the state supreme court.
Everybody was against him. The press was against him, the public was against him, the business interest was against him. When he finally won, he said that if he had known how difficult it was going to be to create a park for the people of Chicago against their will, he doubted that he would have done it.
Chicago has a long and unsavory tradition of powerful men deciding things for the people against their will. Ward's intervention was useful, not in spite of its being antidemocratic, but because it was antidemocratic. The most egregious damage to the lakefront has not come at the hands of commerce but of the people's freely elected minions. Perhaps only Chicagoans will appreciate how high Wille is aiming when she writes that the yet-unbuilt dreams for the lakefront could be realized "if the people of Chicago and their government join forces.
The idea of a recreational lakefront took as long to establish as the physical lakefront itself. It was not until well into the 19th century that Michigan Avenue became the site of corporate headquarters, posh hotels, and culture emporiums; these genteel establishments were made possible by the demise of the waterfront industries.
And at that point only did the lakefront come to seem valuable. The demise in the s of the industrial riverfront opened up new possibilities for residential development near the lake. Wille tells how city planners in endorsed the Plan Commission's Lakefront Resolution, which restricted the lakefront to cultural and recreational uses "except for the sections between Grand Avenue and Randolph.
The omission of that qualification in in effect okayed residential projects such as Lake Point Tower. And as Wille writes in Forever, "The omission wasn't exactly an oversight. The Lakefront Protection Ordinance of protected lakefront land from certain public building projects. But local ordinances as yet offer scant protection from overbuilding on private land abutting Lake Shore Drive.
Developers exploiting their proximity to the lake have thereby cheated thousands of landward residents of views and air. The resentment toward lakefront residents was expressed most pungently by Charles Bowden and Lew Kreinberg in Street Signs Chicago; they railed on behalf of the average blue-collar Chicagoan against the glass apartments blocking the lake air from the rest of the city, stuffed with "assholes and security systems.
Wille reminds us that 20 years ago the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council today's Metropolitan Planning Council advocated view corridors as basic to any plan for air-rights development along the lakefront.
The once-radical idea of views as a form of property has since been upheld by several courts, and local authorities from the Hudson valley of New York to San Francisco and Denver require that developers leave view corridors through their projects.
View corridors are not yet legally provided for under Chicago ordinances, but the concept has been honored in recent decisions by the Chicago Plan Commission. Successful objectors to a proposed seven-story inflatable golf dome for Lincoln Park near Wilson complained not that the structure would block their use of the lake but that it would block their view of it while they used the park.
It is probably true--though Wille doesn't say so--that if it weren't for the rich living along the lake there would be no lakefront-protection movement. There probably wouldn't even be a public lakefront in Chicago if not for the fact that the early lakefront was so ugly and so visible from the tall buildings nearby.
The irony--a satisfying irony to those who share the politics of Bowden and Kreinberg--is that eventually the rich cheat each other of air and views. The push to build as near as possible to the lake so clutters the lakefront that the reason for being near the lake is destroyed. The boom in office, apartment, and hotel towers on the Illinois Central property and across the river at City Front Center owes much to the proximity of the lakefront--which is rendered moot by continuing expansion.
Lake Shore Drive is the poor person's revenge on the rich.
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